Europe's Cities Still Suffering from Harmful Air Pollution

A new report form the European Environment Agency (EEA) says air pollution is still the main environmental health hazard.

According to a news release from the European Environment Agency, its annual air quality report shows that almost all city dwellers are exposed to pollutants at levels deemed unsafe by the World Health Organization (WHO). For some pollutants, more than 95 percent of the urban population is exposed to unsafe levels.

Alongside the report, the EEA is publishing data showing pollution levels in almost 400 cities across Europe. While many large cities have relatively low levels of pollution, others have pollution levels above EU limits for a significant part of the year. "Air pollution is still high in Europe," EEA Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx said. "It leads to high costs for our natural systems, our economy, the productivity of Europe's workforce, and, most seriously, the general health of Europeans."

The most serious air pollutant is fine particulate matter, similar to dust or soot but with very small particles capable of penetrating deep into lungs. Long-term exposure to particulate matter was responsible for the vast majority of air pollution-caused premature deaths in Europe in 2011, the report shows, while high levels of ground-level ozone over short episodes also caused a significant number of deaths.

Most air pollutants have declined slightly over the last decade, including particulate matter and ozone. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), another pollutant, has not fallen as fast as expected. This is partly because vehicles are an important source of NO2, and vehicle emission standards have not always led to the anticipated reductions.

An increasing body of scientific research shows that air pollutants may be more harmful than previously thought. Air pollution's effect on respiratory illnesses and heart disease is well known, but new studies have shown that it can also affect health in other ways, from fetal development to illnesses late in life.

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